Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pre-code Portrayals of Taxi Dancers

This is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley. To read more amazing posts covering film history, click here.


Note: There will be spoilers in this post.


Since the beginning, dance has been a part of the movies. Dance hall girls in particular can be found in films as early as the 1910s with such pictures as Should a Wife Forgive? (1915) and One Touch of Sin (1917). Films such as the Joan Crawford's Taxi Dancer (1927)--her first top billing by the way--reflected the dance hall's evolution into a dime-a-dance establishment. At ten cents a song, dance hall patrons could select the "hostess" with whom they wanted to dance. (Employees were typically women, but there was the occasional establishment with male hosts. These would not make it to film.) Because their time was "rented" much like one might rent a taxi, these women were referred to as taxi dancers. For a society that had only recently accepted the idea of a man holding a woman closely in his arms while dancing, paying to do so was scandalous--a hop, skip, and jump away from prostitution. And yet it wasn't. Dance halls provided filmmakers a setting just dangerous enough to tantalize their audience but safe enough to show on screen without public protest.

In terms of taxi dancers and societal attitudes, two pre-code films that are interesting to consider are Columbia's Ten Cents a Dance (1931) and Warner Brothers' Two Seconds (1932). Released within a year of each other, they give distinctly different portrayals of dime-a-dance gals.

A little music to get you in the mood. 
The song was written for Ziegfeld's Broadway musical, Simple Simon
The musical was not a success. The song, on the other hand, was. 

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Ten Cents a Dance was inspired by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's song of the same name. Written from a taxi dancer's perspective, Hart's lyrics bemoan the trials of the profession. Traces of the song can easily be found in the film resulting in a sympathetic portrait of the dime-a-dance girl.

The film gets straight to the point with Barbara O'Neill (Barbara Stanwyck) standing at the edge of a dance floor appearing bored. A sailor picks her up for a dance. He brags that his paycheck comes in tomorrow, but she is not impressed. Clearly he is not the first to try this line on her. She leaves the floor, claiming that she is wanted on the phone. In the back room, Barbara meets the new girl (Sally Blane, better known as Loretta Young's sister) who is confused by the matron's instructions on how to dance:
She told me to be very careful. And yet she sort of gave me the idea she wanted me to be not so careful. She told me...uh...well to be intimate, intimate but ladylike.

Barbara listens but doesn't offer an explanation. (Is this a case of ignorance is bliss--no matter how temporary?) In the next scene, she meets Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez), a customer who gave her $100 just for sitting with him. For him, she breaks down the matron's job:
She's got to keep the place hot enough to avoid bankruptcy and cold enough to avoid raids.

Ah, now the audience understands. The goal of the dime girl is to live up to standards that contradict each other and therefore are impossible to meet.

In case there were any doubts as to what went on behind the $100, Barbara reiterates that she can't figure out Brad because after visiting the dance hall three times, he hasn't once propositioned her. In other words, propositions are a daily nuisance in the life of a taxi dancer. 
It seems like a Cinderella story: the poor gal who works at a dance hall because her "brains are in [her] feet" meets the wealthy man who gives away money without asking for anything in return. If it were that simple though, there wouldn't be a movie. 

Stanwyck via DoctorMacro
Barbara has already given away her heart to a neighbor, Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley), though he doesn't know it. She also gives her $100 to him when she discovers he is in a jam. Eddie accepts the cash. The two go on a picnic the next day and he asks about her job. Ashamed, she keeps her profession a secret, telling him that she is a dance instructor. The subject is dropped and Eddie calls her an angel. The way Stanwyck repeats the word quietly, almost to herself, shows that this may be the first time her character has been called the term in earnest. Her ears are accustomed to the harsher words of dance hall patrons. In this one moment, Stanwyck is able to show us why her character has fallen for this parasite. 

When Eddie finds out where Barbara actually works, he is outraged. He calls the place a "dump" and expresses disgust in the notion that any man could hold her for ten cents. (Ironically, he didn't begin to show affection towards Barbara until after she had given him money.) Barbara tries to explain that the dance hall isn't as bad as he thinks. Eddie will have none of it and indirectly proposes marriage. She consents, which means she needs to break it off with Brad for good.

The dialogue that most closely resembles Rodger and Hart's song comes by way of Barbara's good-bye to Brad. Before they part, she describes what it's like dancing with taxi hall patrons:
He mauls you around and steps on your toes and tears your dresses and breaths into your face. He has a pocket full of dimes and only one idea in his head.
Barbara will not miss her job. 

Oh, and if audience failed to catch it the first two times, Barbara repeats, "When you gave me that $100, it was the first time in my life I ever took something for nothing." The writers want to drive the idea home, yet the statement also implies that maybe not all of her dances have been so innocent.

Eddie turns out to be a good-for-nothing gambler and cheater who won't admit he is married. He stays out late and is verbally abusive to Barbara. When there is not enough money to pay the bills, she secretly goes back to work at the hall. The signs are there, but Barbara doesn't discover Eddie's true character until the end. When she does, she gives him the heave-ho with words that bite, delivering the lines as only Stanwyck can:
You're not a man. You're not even a good sample.
She reunites with Brad, her "prince" (to use the words in Hart's lyrics). The message of this tale? Maybe the best place to meet your ideal mate is on the dance floor. Well, at least don't be too hasty to rule it out. Anything is possible.

Two Seconds (1932)

Where Ten Cents a Dance tells the woes of taxi dancers, Two Seconds warns of their danger. The film is told in flashback as the main character is executed in an electric chair. The narrative is based on the premise that in the time it takes to be electrocuted (two seconds), one's entire life can flash before his or her eyes. The film does a magnificent job utilizing sound to periodically remind the audience that a man is being electrocuted. As scenes transition, sounds mimic the chair's surging electricity: the buzzing of a drill, pounding of a drum, fizzing of a soda machine, squealing of a radio, humming of a fan. Brilliant.

The story tells of the demise of John Allen (Edward G. Robinson), a working class Joe who represents the everyman. He may not be rich, but he has money in the bank, food on the table, and lofty ideals. He doesn't gamble or waste time on "dames" like his careless roommate, Bud Clark (Preston Foster, who reprised his role from the Broadway play). This changes when John's path crosses with a taxi dancer named Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne).

At first, Shirley appears similar to Barbara O'Neill. The audience witnesses what Barbara only alluded to in Ten Cents: a dance patron "mauls" Shirley and claims she owes it to him because he paid a dime to dance with her. (I love her witty retort, "You paid to dance with your feet, not your hands." You tell 'em, Shirley!) The hall manager apologizes to the patron and sends her back onto the floor with John who has accidentally wandered into the hall. John tells Shirley how she seems different from the others. She thinks he is feeding her line, revealing how common it is for men to try to trick her into bed. While John gets more tickets, another patron attempts to "play around" with her. Though it is already evident that she can take care of herself, John feels the need to rescue her, punching the guy. Shirley gets fired.

John takes her to a soda shop, where he sums up his righteous opinion about her profession:
That's what's the trouble with your job. You know, it makes a guy think you're...well, what he said you were. You hadn't outta work there anymore.
Shirley insists she is "decent" and explains that she can make more money working at the hall than any other career. (Research shows this is true.) She tells of sick parents whom she supports and mentions that she is scared about "being all alone in New York without any money." Up to this point, Shirley has been a fairly sympathetic character. Something is fishy though when she begins the damsel in distress act and perks up upon hearing about John's steady paycheck. It is significant to note that Barbara of Ten Cents was not swayed by money. Maybe the two characters are not as similar as originally thought to be... 

Seeing that John is impressed by an education, Shirley spins a yarn about wanting to go back to night school, but refuses John's offer to get her a job in a factory. She explains, "Oh no, that wouldn't give me time to study." Suspicion confirmed. Osborne's taxi dancer is the polar opposite of Stanwyck's. She is everything the audience had ever heard about dime-a-dance girls. And perhaps worse.

I know your kind. And so do lots of other guys, I bet. 
Bud sizes Shirley up in no time. Apparently it takes one sleaze to know another. (Earlier in the film, Bud has no qualms cheating on his steady.) At the same time, we are not meant to feel that Bud is all that sleazy. His faults are forgiven, Shirley's are not. Double standard.

Shirley sees to it that she gets hitched to John...and his $62.50 a week. Her spot in the sun is short lived, however, when John loses his job and goes a little crazy (it's a long story; check out Kristina's excellent review of the film here for the 411 on what happened). Like Barbara, Shirley has to go back to work at the dance hall to support her husband. Unlike the Ten Cents character, she has no problem flaunting this in her husband's face. She enjoys the power that comes with being the breadwinner. Another reason she stays married to him? 
I've found out that a missus can get away with things that a miss can't. 
The line is a slap across the face and makes sure we know she's rotten to the core. Our sympathy is supposed to lay with John who is facing a fate worse than death: living off his wife's dirty dance hall money. To make things right, he murders her then explains to the judge,"I sunk as low as a guy could get." To be clear, he's not talking about the murder. 

John has completely lost it, and we know whom to blame: Beauty. If she had only stayed home and wallowed in poverty along side him, everything would have been okay. Watching Robinson's intense dramatics, the audience begins to fully comprehend what a grievous sin Shirley has committed. Let this be a warning to the little ladies of the house: Don't do this to your husband!  

Vivienne Osborne (from the movie trailer)
And yet I still feel kind of sorry for the dame that was shot...


Lessons Learned

If you really want to get your hubby mad, work in a dance hall. Better yet, support him with the money from said hall. Use this information at your own discretion. 

Just kidding....

Taxi Dancer (Life Mag, 1937)
In all seriousness, though, the audience learns the evil of dance halls. Both films reveal that society viewed this type of establishment as a "dump" (the term used in both movies) that no decent girl would want to work in. 

On the other hand, a gal could make a good living out of being a dance hostess. Money meant more power and independence. Virtuous or rotten, these working women, who could pay the bills and buy nice clothes without the aid of men, were threats to the male ego. Which begs the question, is this why dance halls were portrayed negatively at a time when jobs were scarce?  


Sources

AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Web. 25 June 2015.

Cressy, Paul Goalby. The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Socialization Study in Commercialized Recreation & City Life. 1932. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Web. 14 March 2015.

Mordden, Ethan. Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

11 comments:

  1. Ah, yes, the old double standard – certain behaviours could be winked at in a man, but not tolerated in a woman.

    This is a fascinating look at taxi dancers, and these two movies. I've not seen these films, but you can bet I'll be checking them out.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon!

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    1. I love all things dance-related, so this topic was a natural fit. ;-) I'm interested in seeing how the portrayals evolved through the years, especially after censorship and some distance from the profession's heyday. I'll be covering more taxi dancer films throughout the next months (as my schedule will let me).

      By the way, thank you for sharing the hostessing duties for the CMH blogathon. I'm enjoying all the posts.

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  2. Great post! Whoever said the career of a taxi dancer was easy?

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    1. Ha--true! And here I thought getting paid to dance would have been a dream job. Tsk, tsk. ;-)

      Thank you for stopping by.

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  3. Ten Cents a Dance piqued my interest while I was researching Stanwyck's pre-Codes but I didn't get round to watching it. What I love most is the realness of her characters - yes she was a beautiful movie star, but she didn't have the untouchability of Garbo and others. And always good to see a double standard!
    (Vicki from GirlsDoFilm - blogger won't let me comment as myself!)

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    1. Your post was excellent--no one beats pre-code Stanwyck. I meant that figuratively, but I guess that works metaphorically as well. ;-) She was never afraid to get gritty in her roles. She seemed to be one of us working-class gals.

      Thank you for stopping by.

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    2. Oops! *works LITERALLY as well. (I'm not good at multi-tasking...)

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  4. Excellent post on two favorites! I especially love Robinson in Two Seconds. It's interesting how modern viewers are drawn to the Vivienne Osborne character, which definitely wasn't their idea back in 1932! I want to recommend Child of Manhattan (1933), which introduces its two main characters inside a dance hall. Nancy Carroll stars as the taxi dancer. It's from an early script by Preston Sturges, who wrote it based on some of his own misadventures. It fits very nicely inside of this post with the pair you covered.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. As I watched the films, I was struck by how amazing Stanwyck and Robinson were. Even in their early pictures, you could tell they had something special compared to everyone around them. I guess when you've got, you GOT it! I will definitely check out Child of Manhattan in my personal quest to view all taxi dancer films. =) Thank you!

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  5. I haven't seen Two Seconds. It sounds wonderful. I like the way you contrasted it with Ten Cents a Dance. Life was hard during the Great Depression.

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    1. I was pleasantly surprised by "Two Seconds." I kept reading how the only thing good about it was Robinson's performance, but I found more than that to appreciate. I have a feeling it's going to be one of my top ten film discoveries this year.

      Thank you for stopping by.

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